Thursday, July 28, 2011

Is the Believing Brain Similar to a Drug Addict's?

This is the ostensible premise of Michael Shermer's latest effort, The Believing Brain, wherein he uses an impressive compilation of research - from neuroscience, to biochemistry to evolutionary psychology- to show that belief inevitably trumps reason. Also, that in many ways, the unchecked brains of believers are like those of drug addicts run amuck...say on meth, or crack. Except in believers' brains, it appears to be dopamine levels that are the culprit.

Shermer, the editor of 'Skeptic' magazine, is perhaps best known by many for his superb insights in the book: The Science of Good and Evil in which he introduces the concept of "moral provisionalism". This is described as a midway position between moral absolutism and moral relativism. As he defines it (p. 168):

"Provisional ethics provides a reasonable middle ground between absolute and moral relative systems. Provisional moral principles are applicable to most people, for most circumstances, for most of the time - yet flexible enough to account for the wide diversity of human behavior"

But in the current book his focus is on belief and how it manifests in human brains. What is there about brains which predisposes them to believe in everything from "alien abductions", to Abominable snowmen, to a "rapture" which will instantaneously remove millions of special believers (of course!), or that a god-Man once existed who could walk on water, raise the dead or resurrect himself from the grave. Of course, many apologists - especially in the latter case- will assert "it's in the Good Book!". But why believe such a book is itself a font of truth, especially when it embodies thousands of blatant contradictions?

Shermer has part of the solution, particularly of how strong belief often precedes other senses. While the old saw "seeing is believing" is often used, the true dynamic is the reverse: Our believing dictates what we are seeing!"

Thus, if a person doesn't wish to believe any contradictions exist in his bible he won't see them. He will simply explain any or all objections away by whatever rationalizing arguments he can muster. "Oh, that's not a real contradiction, it's just a mild difference in meaning!" and so forth. (Or he'll appeal to a specious "hermeneutics" when anyone with two grains of sense realizes that can't apply if a book is regarded as able to be taken as literal! Hence, no qualifying interpretations or supplemental readings are required!)

As an extension of this tendency, according to Shermer, the brains of believers actively seek out any and all sources and information which confirm their pre-existing beliefs. Meanwhile, they actively avert their eyes (and brains)from any information or sources that appear to controvert those beliefs. In this way, they protect their self-running program loops, and auto-approving brain dynamic while keeping irritating skeptics at bay (as well as any skepticism that might emerge from the rational centers of their brains)

Thus, if they fully believe Yeshua resurrected himself, everything they find in their special books or other sources will seek to confirm it, as they steadfastly refuse to acknowledge any evidence that refutes it. Similarly, if they firmly believe in a "Hell" as a place for dead humans to finally get justice, they will relentlessly seek out all sources that try to confirm it, despite the fact only one gospel verse (in Matthew) refers to "everlasting punishment" and that was a result of an erroneous Greek translation!

Shermer covers wide swaths in his book, but he's at his level best when he takes on religious belief. As he notes:

"As a back-of-the envelope calculation, with an order of magnitude accuracy, we can safely say that over the past ten thousand years of history humans have created about ten thousand different religions and about one thousand gods."

Which leads on to the definition of an atheist: the person who simply believes in one god less than anyone else!

But Shermer's point is that not all of these can be true or valid. The very fact so many religions exist, and so many gods, means humans would do well to look with suspicion on their own brains as the primary virtual generator. Until one can actually bring a god into the room and inspect it or him under the microscope- or however- one is not talking of anything real. (Though those who worshipped the Sun, at least have a much better case!)

The other problem that arises for the believer is how can he isolate his god or religion as the "true" one from all the others? Merely citing a special book of revelation is no use since all are replete with other writers' brain errors, and their own false beliefs. Hence, no single source can be proven as uniquely superior to any others. All are subjective and all are relative. do you get outside the matrix of textual relativity, false beliefs and errors to show yours are true?

As Shermer shows, you can't ...because the only reliable method we have for discerning truth is reason, and in the case of believers, their own beliefs undermine that very reason. They do so because the dynamic is to ignore all information that contradicts the belief(s). But if critical information is ignored, then the reason that emerges is stultified, or better, dysfunctional and crippled. It isn't able to go the distance. For example, it would need to identify the necessary and sufficient conditions that make its belief system absolutely true, to the exclusion of all others. But because of ignoring critical information, no n-s conditions of proper utility can be proposed. (This may well be why most believers consistently avoid giving them!)

Now, what I'd have liked to see is much more detail going into the recent work based on SPECT –scans that appears to zero in on the region designated “OAA” – the orientation association area. Much of this work has been done by Andrew Newberg, M.D. and his associate Eugene Daquill M.D.. Their main findings are published in their book, ‘Why God Won’t Go Away: Brain Science and the Biology of Belief’.

Most pertinent to me is the authors’ portrayal of how the brain’s OAA translates an image into a religious reality, described in detail on pages 121-22. This is in connection with a person given an image of Christ and asked to focus on it. Within minutes, neurological measurements show electrical discharges spiraling down from the right attention area (right OAA) to the limbic system, hypothalamus “triggering the arousal section of the structure”.

We know the hypothalamus has both arousal and quiescent components. The authors’ test results and measurements actually showed that as the subject focused on the image of Christ BOTH were activated. As assorted cortical thresholds were crossed, a maximal stimulation (given by spikes in the SPECT -scans) produced a neural “flood” that generated feedback to the attention association area.

To make a long story short, the attention area of the OAA was seen to deprive the right orientation area of the OAA of all neural input not originating with the contemplation of Jesus. In order to compensate, and thereby preserve the neuro-spatial matrix (in which the self could still exist) the right orientation area had to default to the attention area focusing on “Jesus”. As the authors put it (p. 121):

“It has no choice but to create a spatial matrix out of nothing but the attention area’s single-minded contemplation of Jesus”

To me this would have perfectly melded with Shermer's hypothesis of a default agenticity of the brain and believers' perceptions, which enables them to sustain and even nourish cognitively dissonant beliefs daft as those one finds commonly in the Christian religion. (Such as a god-Man resurrecting himself)

Anyway, Newberg and Daquill go on to note that as the process of re-cerebralization continues, all irrelevant neural inputs are stripped away until the only reality left is Jesus. That reality (actually a pseudo-reality confected by the right attention area) thereby takes over the entire mind. Or, in the words of the authors, “it is perceived by the mind as the whole depth and breadth of reality.”

Would this not be a "super default" in the agenticity model of Shermer? I believe so!

This is a profound insight, and fully explains why it's essentially impossible to wean believers away from their objects of worship or devotion based on logic and reason alone. What has happened, in other words, is the subject’s whole existence and identity has become bound up with the focus of his OAA, or more specifically – the right attention area’s focus which channels nearly all neural inputs to that region.

No wonder when Michael Persinger ceased electrical stimulation of his subjects' temporal lobes, creating religious scenes in their noggins (see The Neuropsychology of God Belief), many felt almost suicidal and he had to re-initiate the stimulations. Clearly, these beliefs are almost like crack.

It is evident that even if the ardent believer could part with his addictions, it might not be healthful or helpful to him. So long as he stays in his cubbyhole or church, no harm, no foul. It's when he might go out into the world to seek "justice" and vindication for his belief system, a la Anders Breivik, we need to clamp down.

Speaking of right wing whacko conservativism (such as demosntrated in the Tea Bagger nuts), I loved the last part of Shermer's dissertation in which he ties conservative political beliefs to an assortment of "psychopathologies". (Such as schizoid paranoia, and schizotypal personality disorder. As an example, look at the recent exposure of Tea Bagger Joe Walsh who made Youtube video about not saddling his kids and grand kids with dbets, yet HE still owes $117,000 in back child support!)

In line with this is another news report out of today's WSJ op-ed page: seems that increasingly baby boomers (the 'flower children' of the 60s) are mutating into conservatives at an ever higher rate! When surveys plumbed the source of this mutation, the answer most often given was: We felt compelled to because we started raising a family.

This may be as good a reason as any to start clamping down on the breeder syndrome, since it now appears to engender a predisposition to certain human psychopathologies (in tilting to conservative political thought), in addition to massively increasing the human carbon footprint on our planet. Already we are using the equivalent of 1.5 Earths each year, which is obviously unsustainable.

But that will be a topic for a future blog returning to over-population and how all our life indices are plummeting because of it.

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